WASHINGTON – President Obama, for the first time since he took office six years ago, used his State of the Union Speech last Tuesday to call for new, tougher labor laws to protect worker’s rights. The reaction from labor and it’s lawmaker allies was, as expected, positive.
Early in the President’s first term the then-Democratic controlled House passed the Employee Free Choice Act which would have required companies to recognize unions as soon as a majority of workers submitted signed cards saying they wanted a specific union to represent them. Although a majority in the then-Democratic controlled Senate supported the measure too, it fell short of the votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
The EFCA constituted important labor law reform because, had it passed, workers would not have to go through a long process leading up to an “election” in order to win union representation. That long process has traditionally been the period during which companies harass, intimidate and even fire union supporters.
The president’s prime-time television call for stronger labor law was his first since the demise of the EFCA.
“We need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions and give American workers a voice,” Obama declared in the House Chamber last Tuesday. The demand was part of a broad progressive program to move the economy in the direction of fairness for the working-class majority which has seen its wages stay flat for 30 years.
Although Obama has backed worker rights and labor law reform before, particularly before union or friendly crowds, this time he made the demand on television for all the nation and world to hear.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, in a statement, applauded the president for including the strengthening of collective bargaining rights in his program for raising wages and closing the income gap.
“We applaud the president’s call to strengthen, not weaken, unions,” agreed Diann Woodard, president of the School Administrators. “We hope Congress will hear the president’s message, and work to provide working Americans with a voice on the job, strengthen collective bargaining rights and benefits, and support policies that increase wages.”
Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers agreed: “We applaud the president’s State of the Union remarks calling on lawmakers to address income equality, particularly by speaking out for laws that strengthen unions and give workers a voice,” he said.
“We must increase the federal minimum wage, provide equal pay for equal work, and raise wages by streamlining the ability of workers to unionize and bargain collectively,” said Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky.
Keith Ellison, a Democratic member of the House from Minnesota, mentioned labor law reform at a Jan.21 outdoor rally in Washington D.C. – a rally actually called to condemn the leading role of the Chamber of Commerce in “dark” corporate money politics. The hundreds of millions of dollars in dark money that business poured into campaigns helped kill the EFCA, the Minnesotan said.
None of this moves leading Republicans, however, who have in addition to opposing labor law reform, tried to weaken even the existing law. The National labor Relations Board, for example, was established by the Wagner Act in the 1930’s to ensure that workers would be unhampered when they exercise their collective bargaining rights. Almost continually since then the GOP has tried to weaken the NLRB. Only in the last year, for example, was President Obama able to actually get a full board confirmed by the Senate. GOP filibusters had prevented him from doing so throughout the first half of his presidency.
Mark Gruenberg contributed to this article.
Photo: National RNs rally for the right to unionize. Nurses hold up a sign supporting the Employee Free Choice Act. | National Nurses United